Scarponi & Cunego: An unlikely Giro d’Italia duo

Two former Giro champions talk Lampre leadership ahead of Italian tour

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Lampre-ISD will start the Giro d’Italia with two captains, defending champion Michele Scarponi and Damiano Cunego. However, neither Italian is clear about his plans or what the other’s role will be.

Scarponi is particularly hard to pin down. He always has a smile on his face, a laugh to share and, it seems, an itch in his pants. Maybe he’s uncomfortable with the 2011 title, which he inherited after the sport’s high court, CAS, handed Alberto Contador a two-year racing ban and wiped his results gained since the 2010 Tour de France. The CAS ruled in February that Contador’s rest day positive test at the 2010 Tour fell within World Anti-Doping Agency’s “strict liability” regulation and stripped him of several wins, including his Giro title.

The Spaniard stomped his rivals a year ago. Scarponi was the best of the rest, narrowly beating Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) by 46 seconds in Milan. His main helpers were Alessandro Spezialetti, Diego Ulissi and Poland’s Przemyslaw Niemec. The team has yet to name its Giro riders, but will leave Alessandro Petacchi home and field 2004 winner, Cunego.

Leaving Petacchi out means there is no need for lead-out man, Danilo Hondo, and more space for Scarponi. He’ll have more helpers and a greater chance of winning the race than if the Italian sprinter were chasing stages to add to his 25 career Giro wins. Scarponi, who has had a quiet spring, would not call himself a favorite, however.

“I’m not the favorite, there are many others that are starting this year’s Giro with the same possibilities,” he told VeloNews.

He searched for a comfortable spot on the team car’s hood. His eyes darted around the square outside of the Palais des Princes-Évêques, where he waited for the Liège-Bastogne-Liège team presentation.

“There are many rivals to keep an eye on: Roman Kreuziger, Joaquím Rodríguez, Ivan Basso…”

Basso won the Giro d’Italia in 2006 before being forced to serve a two-year ban for links to doping doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes. He was nicknamed “Birillo.” Scarponi went by “Zapatero” and served a 15-month suspension. Basso came back and won the Giro in 2010 and still worries Scarponi.

“I saw him race in Trentino,” Scarponi said. “He’s going a lot better than what they are saying.”

Asked about Cunego and whether the “Little Prince” will race merely for stage wins at the Giro, Scarponi answered, “Well… He should be.”

Since his 2004 Giro triumph, Cunego hasn’t been capable of winning a grand tour. He morphed into a one-day star, winning the Giro di Lombardia three times and the Amstel Gold Race once. He still has the big races in his legs, though. He won a mountain stage of the Giro del Trentino last week and placed third on the Punta Veleno stage.

“I’ve become better in time trials,” Cunego explained. He was fifth in the Tour of the Basque Country TT behind Tony Martin and Marco Pinotti in April. “We will see after the start, but Scarponi is the captain.”

In fact, Cunego told VeloNews he’s racing for a reason all together outside of his home tour: starting the Giro allows him to skip the Tour de France and start the Vuelta a España, perfect preparation for the world championships. And the worlds road race finishes on top of the Cauberg climb where Cunego won Amstel Gold in 2008 (with a slightly modified finish location). He talked with national team coach, Paolo Bettini, ahead of Amstel Gold earlier this month and was assured a leadership role if he follows the plan.

If all goes to plan, Lampre will fall in behind its defending champion, Scarponi. But it’s the Giro d’Italia and things rarely go to plan.

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